Le Monde board to hold talks with 3 men who want to buy the French newspaper

By Alfred De Montesquiou, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Le Monde board to discuss takeover with bidders

PARIS — Le Monde will hold talks with three businessmen who want to buy the iconic French newspaper and end the financial control that its journalists now have over it.

Le Monde’s supervisory board on Monday backed a bid by Internet billionaire Xavier Niel, Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse, and Pierre Berge, an arts patron and longtime partner of the late designer Yves Saint-Laurent, according to a statement from the paper.

Le Monde says it needs help to pay off debts and survive punishing times in the media industry, and it is looking for an estimated euro100 million ($124 million) capital increase.

In the meantime, to help the struggling paper through the summer, and the trio of bidders pledged to provide a loan of euro10 million by July 5, the paper’s statement said.

Another bidder, a group that includes the owner of Spain’s El Pais and France’s former state telecoms monopoly, said hours before the meeting that it was pulling out.

France’s telecoms giant, Orange, which made a joint bid with the French Nouvel Observateur magazine and the Spanish group Prisa, owner of El Pais, said the group would not maintain its offer after a journalists’ committee that oversees strategic choices at the paper favored the other bid by 90 percent.

Monday’s supervisory board meeting chose to enter exclusive talks for three months with the business trio, known by the acronyms of the three men’s surnames: BNP. Details of the terms were not immediately available.

The journalists had said in a statement Friday they favored the trio’s bid because it was “the most coherent proposition.”

The statement said the bidders had pledged to allow journalists to keep a minority veto voting right on the board — which should guarantee the newspaper’s editorial independence.

Still, Le Monde’s takeover “marks the end of an era,” said Thierry Dussard, a media management professor at Sciences Po, the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

“Reality and capitalism have now caught up with the French press,” said Dussard, who described Le Monde as “the last dinosaur” where journalists ran their newspaper regardless of capital ownership or profits. “It’s the swan song for the journalists’ independence,” he said.

To date, the Le Monde holding has been controlled by an odd blend of internal shareholders, mainly journalists, and minority outsiders with decreased voting rights.

French media reported that conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to weigh in on Le Monde’s takeover, favoring the bid led by Orange, in which the French state maintains a majority stake. Critics accused him of meddling with the media to find a more docile owner for Le Monde, which has a strong history of independence, before 2012 presidential elections.

Dussard said the choice of the journalists’ committee was “a clear anti-Sarkozy reaction,” because a deal with the Internet giant could have been benefited Le Monde and its website.

Founded in 1944 after much of the French press had been discredited for collaborating with the Nazis who occupied France during World War II, the center-left Le Monde has been controlled by its journalists for decades. But a series of hazardous business ventures and long-declining readership and avertising revenue have left the daily struggling for cash.

Le Monde’s readership is slightly smaller than center-right rival Le Figaro, with 318,000 copies sold daily on average in 2009, according to the OJD media monitoring association.

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